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Performance and the Brain, It’s All in Your Head

When it comes to athletic performance, how we prepare (training, nutrition, hydration, and rest) and the environment determines what the outcome will be. However, how we frame our mind can also affect our ultimate performance on any given day.

We know from running that if we increase our running economy, we can reduce our finishing time. Studies have shown that if we can increase our running economy by 1%, our race times will decrease by 1%. This amount could be achieved by reducing the weight of your shoes by a mere 100g by running in racing flats (1). A better way would be to learn to run with more efficient form. A more novel approach would be to smile while we run versus frowning which gives a running economy difference of 2.8%. Runners who frowned had poorer running economy and a higher self-reported perceived effort due to increased tension in their bodies (2).

According to award winning journalist Alex Hutchinson, who has followed the science of running and observed the latest attempt of a sub 2 hour marathon, believing that you can achieve a certain goal is just as important for our performance outcomes. “Training is the cake and belief is the icing – but sometimes that thin smear of frosting makes all the difference” (3). When Roger Bannister broke the elusive 4 minute mile, everyone else also started surpassing the unbreakable barrier.

Whether you are running the upcoming Sun Run or one of the various distances of the Vancouver Marathon, consider training your brain as part of your preparation. This is also likely to be relevant for other athletic endeavours and aspects of our daily lives.

1. Hookkanen, W et al, Altered running economy directly translate to altered distance running performance, Med Sci Sports Exerc 2016 48(11): 2175-2180.

2. Brick, N et al, The effects of facial expression and relaxation cues on movement economy, physiological, and perceptual responses during running, Psych of Sports and Exercise 2018 34:20-28.

3. Hutchinson, A, Endure: Mind, Body, and Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, 2018.